UL Sustainability Expert Shares Insider Tips on How to Make Your School Healthier

July 29, 2015

We recently spoke with Paul Bates, the Education and Training Program Manager for the UL Environment business division of UL, who shared some simple ways to incorporate greener building design that will make your school significantly healthier and more sustainable. Bates stresses the importance of indoor air quality considerations, whether a school is sprucing up for the summer, renovating a wing or building a brand-new construction. And he says that the three areas that make the biggest impact are paint, flooring and furniture.

Choose — and Understand — Low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) Paint
Bates recommends looking for a third party certification on products that verify that paint is low VOC content as well as low VOC emitting (or reduced chemical emissions). Just because something is low VOC content does not mean it is low VOC emitting. As the paint dries on the wall, according to Bates, “The product is actually physically changing properties at the molecular level. That allows the product to emit VOCs at higher levels than when in the liquid phase.” Your paint should be both low VOC content and low VOC emitting.

Consider Maintenance When Picking Flooring
The same general rule applies to flooring as it does for paint. Bates advises seeking third-party certified low-emitting flooring products. “A lot of schools use VCT [vinyl composition tile] flooring” says Bates. Some vinyls contain phthalates. “Phthalates are actually a plasticizer that makes vinyl more resilient and softer but they are also a known endocrine disruptor,” says Bates. “We want to keep those away from children, whose bodies are still developing.” The reason schools choose vinyl, says Bates, is because it tends to be very inexpensive and durable. But it also needs to be stripped, waxed and buffed to keep it shiny. That means more cleaning chemicals, some of which are potent and don’t have green certifications available. Bates suggests looking for low-emitting and low maintenance flooring options when choosing floors in new or renovated buildings.

Find Healthy Furniture
When it comes to choosing furniture for new buildings, it’s important to consider the materials and their construction in addition to the function.  He suggests finding furniture that doesn’t have a lot of cracks and crevices where dust and mold can embed and create unhealthy air quality for the children. Not only will furniture without space for dust to settle improve indoor air quality, it will also make cleaning staff’s job easier. Look for untreated options, too. “Especially when furniture is upholstered, we want to make sure it hasn’t been treated with flame retardants, antimicrobial properties or stain resistant chemicals, which simply add more chemicals to the indoor environment that children or staff may be exposed to,” says Bates.

UL — a generous sponsor of Healthy Schools Campaign’s Green Clean Schools program — is a trusted third-party safety science company that schools can turn to, through their ECOLOGO and GREENGUARD certifications, when searching for more sustainable product choices.  Representatives from UL will be speaking at HSC’s Green Clean Schools Summit in Seattle this week. We look forward to continuing this conversation with him and with leaders from schools across the nation!